February 20, 2024 | Dancy Mason

The “Underwater People” Nearing Extinction


The Sama-Bajau

The Sama-Bajau is a collective name for several peoples around Southeast Asia. But to outsiders, they've got one enormous claim to fame.

Sea Nomad Sama-Bajau

Sea Nomads

Maybe the most famous name for the Sama-Bajau is "Sea Gypsies" or "Sea Nomads," and some of the Sama-Bajau call themselves Sama Dilaut, or "sea Sama." That's because they lived almost entirely on the sea, and their lives are incredibly different from us. 

Sama-Bajau peopleLaboo Studio, Shutterstock

Where They Live 

The Sama-Bajau live mostly on the islands of Tawi-Tawi in the Philippines. However, they also settle on other islands in the Philippines, as well as in Borneo and throughout eastern Indonesia.

Sama-Bajau people in boatsLaboo Studio, Shutterstock

Diving 

Because of their dependence on the water, the Sama-Bajau have developed absolutely incredible abilities in free-diving. Their divers have the greatest diving time of all humans, and can spend more than five hours a day underwater. Though this can come with a cost. 

Sama-Bajau's people diving in sea, hunting for family foodkksteven, Shutterstock

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Diving Feats 

Serious sea hunters and divers among the sea Sama will take their devotion one step further. At an early age, they will intentionally rupture their eardrums, making it easier to withstand the pressure underwater. Because of this, many elderly Sama-Bajau have difficulty hearing.

Sama-Bajau childrenI, Hu9423, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

Genetic Differences 

The Sama-Bajau have been diving for more than a thousand years, and it's beginning to show in their DNA. One study revealed their spleens are 50% larger than a nearby group. This helps them store haemoglobin-rich blood better, which then lets them stay underwater longer.

Sama-Bajau peopleTropenmuseum, CC BY-SA 3.0,  Wikimedia Commons

Houseboat Living

The sea Sama people live on painstakingly crafted houseboats they call lepa, balutu, or vinta most commonly. Lepa boats have a house structure at the center of the hull, with a removable flooring and even a removable roof. 

Sama-Bajau womanTorben Venning, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Eating On A Houseboat

The house part of a lepa may provide shelter, but there are also sections on the boat that also give sustenance. The sea Sama's houseboats contain a portable hearth for cooking on the stern, plus places to store food and water. In fact, everything on the boat is made to adapt.

A Sama-Bajau  boatsTorben Venning, CC BY 2.0,  Wikimedia Commons

Movable Boats

Considering that the sea Sama live or die by their boats, it makes sense that they are so customizable. The boat's single sail is mounted on a detachable mast, and can be removed just like the boat's roof and flooring.

Historically, the boat was powered by paddles, but most modern ones are motorized. 

Sama-Bajau peopleTorben Venning, CC BY 2.0 , Wikimedia Commons

Families Close By

Each houseboat is generally intended to hold a single, nuclear family. But more than the, sea Sama tend to travel in flotillas of boats made up of their more extended relatives.

Sama Bajau peopleTorben Venning, CC BY 2.0,  Wikimedia Commons

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Working together

When they get married, a couple can choose to live with the wife or the husband's family flotilla. This is important, because their allies will help them fish and live, so choosing correctly can mean the difference between thriving, surviving, or death. 

Sama-BajauLaboo Studio, Shutterstock

Meet Ups 

Although one houseboat contains a nuclear family, and a flotilla contains a more extended family alliance, those aren't the only social structures among the sea Sama.

During certain times of the year, a flotilla will moor at a common spot, called a mooring point or a sambuanganto meet and socialize with an even greater range of relatives. 

sama bajauTopfmodel, CC BY-SA 3.0,  Wikimedia Commons

Big Social Gatherings

Because most of these social gatherings are for festivals or weddings, they are generally organized under an elder of the group, and tend to take place near significant sites like cemeteries. 

Bajau ladiesLano Lan, Shutterstock

Home Turf

Although the sea Sama have historically been nomadic, their wanderings don't necessarily take them far. They tend to have a home mooring point, and don't sail more than 25 miles from it. 

The Sama-Bajau housekksteven, Shutterstock

Sun Protection

Because they are out so often in the sun, the Sama-Bajau women in particular use a home-made sun protection powder they make from weeds, rice, and spices.

bajau peopleNokuro, Shutterstock

Water Arts

The Sama-Bajau houseboats are extremely functional, and the Sama build them to be low on the water so they can more easily gather nets and row. However, they don't just exist for function. The sea Sama decorate them with intricate floral designs called okil. These aren't the only distinctive parts of their culture, either.

Sea Bajau people on boathkhtt hj, Shutterstock

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Mainstream Religion

Although religion and sects vary among the Sama-Bajau, the majority follow some version of Islam, usually Sunni Islam. There are, however, a small minority of practicing Catholics and Protestants among them. 

Bajau  peopleLano Lan, Shutterstock

Nomadic Religion

The more nomadic Sama-Bajau tend to follow Islam in their own way. The Ubian Bajau, another nomadic people, believe in local sea spirits, or "Jinn," as a part of their Islamic practices. 

Bajau ethnicity people  dancingSylvia sooyoN, Shutterstock

Ancient Beliefs

Long ago, ancient Sama-Bajau were more animistic in their religious beliefs, and some still practice. In this belief, Umboh Tuhan, or the "Lord of the Sea," rules over the world with his consort, Dayang Dayang Mangilai, or the "Lady of the Forest."

chieftain of the BajauThe National Archives UK, Wikimedia Commons

Boat Rituals

This belief in sea spirits and other forces is intertwined in much of the Sama-Bajau's boat culture. In earlier times, a family would build or buy a lepa boat for a young man before he married as a symbol of his independence and new life. 

Traditional Bajau's boat called Lepa LepaMuslianshah Masrie, Shutterstock

Magic Spells

Some Sama-Bajau employed the village shaman to bless their lepa with various spells. Some of the most popular spells included ones that supposedly made the boats invisible, especially to piracy, or even able to deflect bullets.

Traditional Bajau's boat called Lepa-LepaMuslianshah Masrie,  Shutterstock

Language

The Sama–Bajau speak some version of Sinama, the common name for the ten languages of their subgroup. However, most Sama-Bajau have needed to learn multiple languages to get by in the world. 

sama bajauYusnizam Yusof, Shutterstock

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Linguistic Differences

Despite the fact that the Sama-Bajau live primarily in the Philippines, their language pronunciation is quite different from the Tagalog spoken in more central areas in the Philippines. Indeed, it has become its own branch of "Sama-Bajaw languages."

sama bajau peopleReggie Lee, Shutterstock

Death Rites

For many of the nomadic seafaring Sama, their boat was both life and death. Many death rites included disassembling the lepa of the fallen Sama-Bajau and using it as a coffin for their funeral. 

sama bajau older people on a boatHanafi Latif, Shutterstock

Graves

The okil carvings that the Sama-Bajau use on their boats also go on their traditional burial grounds. They carve okil on grave markers, many of which are on the islands of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

Detail of okil carvings on a Sama-Bajau vintaHornell, J.,  Wikimedia Commons

Dancing

The Sama-Bajau also dance as part of their spiritualism. For the sea Sama, the festival pagkanduli involves dancing under the sacred dangkan tree, or strangler fig, and then in a grove of kama'toolang or pandan trees. 

malaysians wearing bajau sama traditional costumesAugustine Bin Jumat, Shutterstock

Horse Culture

The sea Sama have their own rituals, but there are some Sama-Bajau that are quite different from them. The West Coast Bajau, who are more land-oriented, are particularly known for their traditional horse culture, and are excellent riders. 

Bajau samah in traditional costume riding a decorated horseAugustine Bin Jumat, Shutterstock

Horse Clothing

The West Coast Bajau even have their own horse riding costumes, consisting of a fine shirt and trousers in white or black with gold buttons, gold lace trimming, and a headpiece. They also carry a spear, riding crop, and dagger, and dress their horse in decorative cloths with brass bells. 

Bajau samah in traditional costume riding a decorated horseAugustine Bin Jumat, Shutterstock

Ancient Culture

The ancient Sama people were most influenced by the kingdoms of Malay in both language and culture. They also had significant contact with both India as a nation and Islam as a religion and culture. 

pre-Islamic Melayu KingdomRyan Wijaya, CC BY-SA 4.0,  Wikimedia Commons

Where They Came From

Going all the way back, many historians believe that the earliest, proto Sama-Bajau originally came from the island of Borneo.

indigenous people in BorneoF. Boyle,  Wikimedia Commons

Arts And Crafts

Besides music and dance, the Sama-Bajau people also take part in weaving and needlework skills.

Sama Woman Making A Traditional MatErik Abrahamsson, CC BY-SA 4.0,  Wikimedia Commons

Music 

The Sama-Bajau have their own music traditions, with songs being handed down orally through generations. These songs are usually performed at marriages and go along with dances and musical accompaniment. 

Some of the most popular songs are love songs, with the famous trio Dalling Dalling, Duldang Duldang, and Pakiring Pakiring forming the well-known Sangbayan.

Men wearing bajau sama traditional costume dancingAugustine Bin Jumat, Shutterstock

Facing Extinction

Although the Sama's roots in music are deep, their folk songs are slowly being lost to memory, as the younger generation has largely stopped learning them.

Bajau Laut kids playingozerkizildag, Shutterstock

Hierarchies

Because of their nomadic roots, the Sama-Bajau society is usually set far apart from higher governmental powers in the countries they live in. Mooring points remain the largest political unit in Sama-Bajau society. 

Bajau laut floating villageNokuro, Shutterstock

Equality

Besides a more individual society, the Sama-Bajau tend to have a more egalitarian view of life. They have no caste system, and most of their society runs on reciprocal labor.

Bajau childrenReggie Lee, Shutterstock

Exceptions To The Rule

One exception to the widespread equality in Sama-Bajau culture is the Jama Mapun and the Sama Pangutaran of the Philippines. These peoples implemented feudal ideals of nobles and serfs, likely after coming into contact with the Sultanate of Sulu. 

West Coast BajauCEphoto, Wikimedia Commons

Migration

By necessity, the Sama-Bajau used to migrate a lot, following the patterns of sea life. However, they have also migrated in the past if the nearest landfall government was hostile to their people.

sama bajau people on  a boatSylvia sooyoN, Shutterstock

Food

As you might expect, the Sama-Bajau tend to live on subsistence fishing. When they need other objects, food, or materials, they will generally trade for it. In the past, they traded with China for luxury goods such as pearls and shark fins. 

Sea-gypsies woman, bajaumanzrussali, Shutterstock

Piracy

In the European colonial period, there were many mentions of the Sama-Bajau raiding far-reaching parts of Southeast Asia as pirates. There is even evidence of pirate activities from the Sama-Bajau in the 12 and 13th centuries, in the Straits of Singapore. 

sama bajau pirate shipRafael Monleón,  Wikimedia Commons

Peaceful People

Although there is some history of piracy, for the most part the Sama-Bajau now (and many back then) are noted for their peaceful nature as a group, and visitors find them cheerful and helpful.

Sama-Bajau housesProtestant Episcopal Church, Wikimedia Commons

Wealth

By and large, the Sama-Bajau people are not wealthy, relying as they do on subsistence fishing, limited trading, and continued semi-nomadic habits.

Sama-Bajau people on a boatLaboo Studio, Shutterstock

Education

Because of their nomadic history and continued poverty, many Sama-Bajau are illiterate. This is despite the fact that they can speak in several languages. 

sama bajau peopleLano Lan, Shutterstock

Origin Of Their Name

The word "Sama" is probably from an Austronesian word meaning "together' or "kin." However, the term "Bajau," likely put on the group by outsiders, is still a bit of a mystery. 

It may have come from the Malay word for "getting further apart," or else the Indonesian word for "boat dwelling." It may even come from the Brunei Malay word "to fish."

Bajau  child on a boatNokuro, Shutterstock

Insulting Term

Over the years, the term "Bajau" has come to be more and more insulting in the Philippines, usually in comparison to the term "Sama." Many people who seek to denigrate the Sama-Bajau nomads for their poverty and sometimes begging will simply call them "Bajau."

Bajau peopleNokuro, Shutterstock

General Population 

There are only about 1.3 million Sama-Bajau worldwide, with most of them living either in the Philippines, Malaysia, or Indonesia.

Sama-Bajau peopleLaboo Studio, Shutterstock

Dying Out

Over the years, the majority of Sama-Bajau have abandoned sea-sea living as their way of life has become less and less possible. Modernization has also driven many of them to the shores, with precious few living in houseboats today and most opting for Sama-style coastal houses.

sama bajau village on a coast lineYusnizam Yusof, Shutterstock


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